A Nation Planted By Founding Fathers' Green Thumbs Washington, Jefferson and Adams may have planted the seeds of liberty in America, but a new book says they were also obsessed with nurturing tomatoes, beans and trees in lovingly tended gardens.
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A Nation Planted By Founding Fathers' Green Thumbs

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A Nation Planted By Founding Fathers' Green Thumbs

A Nation Planted By Founding Fathers' Green Thumbs

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George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, these are names we revere as the founding fathers of our nation, planters of the seeds of liberty. But according to a new book, all these great men were also planting food and flowers, collecting trees and shrubs for their own gardens, a pastime that author Andrea Wulf argues shaped not only the grounds of Monticello and Mount Vernon but also the new nation.

Wulf has written a book called "Founding Gardeners," about the revolutionary generation. We met for a talk at the United States Botanic Garden, greenhouses just south of the Capitol Building.

This garden, this glass - garden under glass that we're sitting in now, was not established or even really seriously under way until 1850, long after the founding fathers were gone. But you write in your book that it was the brainchild of George Washington. He thought it was important to have a botanic garden. Now, why?

Ms. ANDREA WULF (Author, "The Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation"): Well, he - in 1796, when he's thinking about his retirement, one of the things he wants to leave as a legacy is a national university which would bring all young men from the 13 different states together.

And in the same way, he was thinking about a botanic garden, that it would be a garden that would unite America's flora from all 13 states, that it would be a reminder of America, and it would also provide a - almost like a nursing ground from where to send these trees to other places in the nation.

So he was talking about the parent trees that should be sent out to other states in America.

WERTHEIMER: So the parent trees would grow in the botanic garden, and seeds and seedlings would then travel out to the states?

Ms. WULF: Would be sent out to other nurseries and seed collectors, because they really all believed that America's trees were a reflection of the nation, of this kind of strong, young, fertile nation.

So Washington, for example, creates a all-American garden in Mount Vernon. And I would argue it's the first American garden in the young republic, which he starts actually on the eve of the Battle of New York.

When the British are about to attack New York, 30,000 British troops are, you know, about to arrive in New York, he brushes aside his generals and his military maps, and he sits down and writes a letter to his estate manager in Mount Vernon, asking him to design a new garden.

And what is more remarkable than the timing, really, is that he's asking for only native species.

WERTHEIMER: Only American plants.

Ms. WULF: Yes. Only American plants. It's almost like as if he wants to create an all-American garden where no English tree is allowed to claw its roots in the soil.

WERTHEIMER: George Washington and his - he was not the - according to your book, not the only innovation that George Washington created, the American garden, but he also pioneered a sort of use of manure in gardens.

Ms. WULF: Well, I have to say I think one of the biggest surprises I had when I wrote this book is to discover that the first four presidents of the United States were all utterly obsessed with manure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WULF: So Washington, for example, is the first American to collect farm dung in a specially designed building. They are looking at the depleted soil, really, from tobacco cultivation. And in order to replenish the soil, they are all experimenting with manure or what we would call compost, probably, today.

So they're exchanging recipes, and there's a wonderful image, I think, of John Adams as the American minister in London who literally jumps into a pile of manure, teasing apart the straw from the dung and then gleefully declaring that it is not equal to mine.

So they are all totally obsessed with manure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: You know, I think of John Adams as the sort of, you know, feisty president, and you think of his wife, Abigail Adams, and their relationship. But I did not know, until I read your book, that he was a mad gardener.

Ms. WULF: Yeah. I mean, I think of all of them, Adams, I think, is what we would most recognize today as a gardener because he loves his dirt. I mean, he just loves getting his hands dirty and having his hands in the, you know, in the manure, in the soil. And he - whenever he is involved in political battles, he is yearning, yearning to be in his garden.

He says, like, you know, the thing I would love to do most now is be digging in my potato yard. And I think Abigail quite enjoys him, you know, going to the garden and working off his temper. So he's - he has this totally visceral connection with the soil, I think.

WERTHEIMER: Jefferson was a great believer in expanding westward and collecting more land and more land and more land. But you write that James Madison was much more interested in caring for and preserving land.

Ms. WULF: James Madison is, you know, known as the father of the Constitution here. But he is really also the father of American environmentalism. He gives a speech in 1818, which is just extraordinary, which was very widely circulated also in Europe in which he condemns the Virginians for their ruthless exploitation of the soil and destruction of the forest.

And he says that in order for America to survive, Americans have to protect their environment. And he's talking about nature as a very fragile ecological system and that man had to find a place within nature without destroying it.

WERTHEIMER: Andrea Wulf. Her new book is "Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation."

Thank you very much.

Ms. WULF: Thank you.

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